Shalt Thou Kill?

WASHINGTON — Bullets whizzed by the young Catholic soldier's head, reminding him he might leave Iraq in a body bag. Explosions surrounded him. A hostile insurgent charged, and the solider shot him dead.

“Will I burn in hell?” he wondered, thinking of the Fifth Commandment's order, “Thou shalt not kill.”

During a visit home, the soldier's girlfriend heard of the killing and also worried about his soul.

If his soul is in trouble, it's not for that, says the Catholic Church (see sidebar). One unfortunate effect of the lack of catechesis is that Catholic soldiers haven't learned that theirs is a noble calling.

“I hear from soldiers and military chaplains on a daily basis” about Catholic wartime ethics, says Judy McCloskey, director of, an online support group for Catholics fighting war.

To make matters worse, some Catholic ethicists have confused the issue, and newspapers and wire services have reported their words as if they were Catholic doctrine.

Archbishop Edwin O'Brien of the Archdiocese for Military Services told the Register it can be difficult for a Catholic soldier suffering a crisis of conscience to get solid answers, based in Catholic teachings, because the Church has only 30 chaplains spread throughout Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I'm sure there are some who have qualms of conscience about pulling the trigger when another human faces them, and it should not be done lightly,” Archbishop O'Brien said. “But there is clear justification in self defense, and I think most of our troops realize they're there to defend innocents against terrorists. We're not the ones blowing up Jeeps and running car bombs into food markets. We're there to stop that, and I think that's rather obvious.”

Archbishop O'Brien said no mature Catholic, well versed in the faith, would mistake the Fifth Commandment as a condemnation of soldiers.

But that doesn't make killing any easier.

“Though a devout Catholic in that situation might still have trouble getting to sleep at night,” he said. “It should never be pedestrian or routine to kill.”

Chaplain Shortage

Though nothing's vague about Catholic teaching pertaining to the ethics of fighting war, McCloskey said thousands of soldiers probably live with needless guilt and anxiety because they're ignorant of Church doctrine, which is sometimes misrepresented by anti-Catholic activists and the mainstream secular press.

“Most of these guys in battle are young, ages 17 to 22,” McCloskey said. “They're giving their time, family life, and every comfort they've ever known to put their lives on the line for the rest of us. To even be questioned about the morality of killing in battle can be unnerving for them if they don't understand the context of the Fifth Commandment.”

But on the field, misinterpretations of the Fifth Commandment and reverence for life can be fatal.

McCloskey said hesitation to pull the trigger, in life-or-death battlefield situations, could easily cost Catholic soldiers their lives. McCloskey shared a typical e-mail sent recently to by a young solider in Iraq:

“I've killed an insurgent before, and probably will have to again when I go back,” the solider wrote. “My girlfriend thinks I've disobeyed the commandment not to kill. Have I?”

McCloskey had Catholic apologist Christopher Stefanick reply to the soldier, explaining that Church teaching views military service as the defense of innocent life and an honorable vocation that sometimes involves killing in defense of self and others.

“The Fifth Commandment does not outlaw all killing,” Stefanick wrote. “Hebrew actually has two separate words for killing. One refers to a ‘justified killing’ and the other to ‘sinful killing,’ which we often call ‘murder.’”

To make matters worse, Catholic denunciations of the justice of the war in Iraq put soldiers in a tricky position. Here again, soldiers needn't worry.

Catholic doctrine would place any guilt on the commander in chief — not the soldiers. Shakespeare put this doctrine into a soldier's mouth in his play Henry V.

“We are the king's subjects,” says a soldier, when asked about the justice of the fight the night before a battle. “If his cause be wrong, our obedience to the king wipes

the crime of it out of us.”

“But if the cause be not good,” answers another, “the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make.”

Stefanick explained that this is because Jesus made clear the state's authority to order the taking of life — and Jesus said it clearest when he told Pilate that he had “authority from above” to order his own death.

Stefanick told of saints who served as soldiers and he quoted the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which teaches: “Those who are sworn to serve their country in the armed forces are servants of the security and freedom of nations. If they carry out their duty honorably, they truly contribute to the common good of the nation and the maintenance of peace” (2310).

‘There to Protect'

Father Frank Pavone, director of Priests for Life, concurs that it's a mistake for anyone to use Catholic reverence for life as an impediment to fighting in a state-sanctioned war.

“The commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ refers to the taking of innocent life, directly and deliberately,” Father Pavone said. “The literal meaning is, ‘Thou shalt not murder.’ If a solider intentionally kills innocent civilians, he or she has broken the commandment. But if a solider carries out legitimate orders on a mission in the course of fighting combatants, that is morally different from murder.”

Lt. Colonel Brian Duemling, a Catholic from New Jersey, returned in October from a one-year tour of duty in Baghdad. His Army unit wound up in the middle of several rocket attacks, and Duemling was constantly aware that he might have to kill or be killed.

A fellow reservist in his division was a Catholic priest, and they often talked about God and Catholic morality.

“I was lucky that he was there,” Duemling said. “That factor absolutely helped me through the whole ordeal.”

Duemling said a Catholic solider in battle has not only the right, but the moral obligation to shoot aggressive enemy combatants.

“You're dealing with people who, in many cases, are evil and have no reverence for human life,” Duemling said. “Some insurgents believe they're fighting for a cause, and many others are just plain evil and they like to maim and kill. There are souls gone bad over there. We are there to protect the innocent children, husbands and wives who are trying to lead peaceful lives.”

Wayne Laugesen is based in Boulder, Colorado.

A Wartime Catechism

Duty to Defend

Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty,” says the Catechism, No. 2265. “T hose who legitimately hold authority also have the right to use arms to repel aggressors.”

Military Honor

Not only do our fighting men and women not sin, “If they carry out their duty honorably, they truly contribute to the common good of the nation and the maintenance of peace,” says the Catechism in No. 2310.

The Draft

Public authorities … have the right and duty to impose on citizens the obligations necessary for national defense,” it says in No. 2310.

Limits of War

Does that mean all's fair in love and war? No. “Non-combatants, wounded soldiers, and prisoners must be respected and treated humanely,” says the Catechism in No. 2313.


“The extermination of a people, nation, or ethnic minority must be condemned as a mortal sin,” says the Catechism in No. 2313. “One is morally bound to resist orders that command


Conscientious Objectors

“Public authorities should make equitable provision for those who for reasons of conscience refuse to bear arms; these are nonetheless obliged to serve the human community in some other way,” it says in No. 2311.